Benjamin’s 2021 American Geophysical Union Experience

This year’s AGU Fall meeting rotated to New Orleans, probably the most unique of any of the cities that AGU takes place in. We were met at the airport by a band organised by the meeting, and took the bus to mid city where I stayed. When I left Montreal there was a couple of inches of snow on the ground which was quickly turning to ice, but I did not want to bring my coat along and was ready for the respite of mid twenty degrees before I had even left, and indeed some months before. I registered at the conference centre, 1 hour’s walk at the same pace as the charming trams down Canal Street, and looked around the halls and grabbed a spare mask. It was strange to see some people at the conference not wearing one. It was chilly inside and I was glad I had brought a jumper. 

Benjamin in the foreground with a band playing in the background at the airport.
Greeted at the airport by a band

I attended a nice mix of talks and was glad that my oral presentation was in the middle of the week so it was not looming over me the entire time as it had in the past. However it was at 8 am on Wednesday morning and I wondered about the turn out for a mid-week early morning session. AGU is a long week with late nights and a lot of walking and talking. The room was small and had about 25 people in it. I think that conferences are still trying out different formats of presentations and I was surprised to find out that the format was a set of 5-minute overview followed by a free for all of questions, although being able to ask questions online is advantageous as more people can participate. I thought that everyone would have watched the 15-minute longer presentations but I’m not sure that everyone had, and I received one question. It felt a little disheartening but I think poster sessions are better for questions and feedback, and I brought some printouts of my data to discuss and refer to at the poster all in a kind of mini-poster session. The overview talks in my session were very interesting, and it was a hybrid session so there were both in-person and zoom overview talks given. 

New Orleans street that Benjamin walked on the commute to the conference venue. Street is lined with vehicles and shows row houses.
Views on my hours commute to the conference centre

Because of covid it seemed less social or less easy to approach people, and it was also difficult to tell who was who and to get close enough to read name badges and still politely maintain 2 metres distance. In the past the lanyard colour indicated which broader grouping of sessions you were part of, but this year indicated what level of comfort the participant had with social distancing. I find that conferences are always quite solitary and involve trekking back and forth to different interesting talks, looking for somebody to connect with. This year I signed up to host a queer networking pod in the poster hall after my talk. I rushed there to find a whole group of people, more than had been in attendance at my session, chatting and getting to know one another. There was a pod from 9.30-10.30 am each day and I think it is a great way of starting each conference day having had a chance to connect with someone new, as well as colleagues from previous years. This is especially nice and welcoming for first-time attendees, and I overheard people sharing advice and tips about navigating such a large conference, and telling each other about networking events that they had not heard about. One of these events was the ACQ Networking Meet-up on the Thursday evening where the organisers had managed to secure funding to cover refreshments for all of the attendees. They did a wonderful job organising it even though double the number of people anticipated turned up. This was a chance to get to know people a bit better than during the quick zipping around at the convention centre. AGU has different official networking events that you can sign up for but others are word of mouth. In the past I heard about ACQ by chance but this year it was part of the official program, and was advertised on Twitter, so the turn out was excellent. I met a lot of people and promised to visit them at their poster sessions. I learnt a lot, made links with my own research, and met many new people. It was a pleasure to be able to visit New Orleans, a beautiful city full of history and of life, and I also met many local people outside of the conference. My impression is that people are happy that people are visiting, and businesses are happy to have conferences like AGU take place, but there is also a sense of anger about gentrification taking place in the city.  I am very glad to have been able to visit and experience the conference and New Orleans, and returned to Montréal feeling very satisfied. 

Park in New Orleans with a focus on a water management system to mitigate flooding
Water management projects in parks


Below are some links to read more about gentrification in New Orleans:


Benjamin Keenan, Biogeochemist

Photo showing Benjamin in the foreground with a volcano erupting the background
Benjamin during an eruption of Volcán de Fuego or Chi Q’aq’ in Guatemala

Hello everyone. I am a biogeochemist who uses ancient molecules found in lake sediments to investigate interactions between humans and their environment. I am finishing a PhD in biogeochemistry at McGill in Montréal, Québec. I like skiing and ice skating, jazz, and when the earth is not frozen over I spend my lot of time bike-camping and swimming outdoors. I moved to Canada after a degree in geological sciences in England/California and working as an environmental consultant, a water engineer, and as a research assistant at the Complutense University of Madrid.

My current research looks at how the lowland Maya interacted with their environment and how they responded to climate change over 3,300 years. I take samples from Central America, extract organic molecules known as lipids and analyse them using different methods. I use plant waxes as a proxy for vegetation and hydrological change (how wet or dry it was) in the past, polycyclic aromatic carbons (from the incomplete combustion of carbon) as a proxy for biomass burning the past, and faecal stanols as proxies for population change.

My first chapter shows that population declines in the southwest Maya lowlands are associated not only with drought at multiple times throughout history, but also with anomalously wet periods, and has also highlighted potential efforts to reduce soil erosion as well as the use of night soil (human waste) as fertiliser in the past. This work attracted a lot of media interest, including from the CBC, Haaretz, El Mundo, and Archaeology Magazine, and will be vulgarised in the magazine Le Climatoscope. It also forms part of the chapter “Climate Change and Variability in the Protoclassic” in Remaking Maya Civilization, Social and Political Transformations in the Protoclassic Maya Lowlands.

Benjamin wearing a striped shirt, shorts and wellington boots in a tree over a cliff reaching out to collect leaves for analyses
Benjamin in the field in Guatemala collecting leaves for plant wax analyses

Now I am in the process of writing my thesis, which I will submit in December, and working with a digital artist to create a virtual Itzan, the archaeological site where the samples I have analysed were taken from. I think it is important for people to know that ancient societies were affected by climate change and by looking at responses to environmental change in the past how we might better understand anthropogenic climate change today and in the future. I am particularly interested in migration as climate change adaptation and am a member of the McGill Refugee Research Group.

Most students are fortunate enough to be on campuses with interesting seminars and public lectures in different departments that you can attend and make connections between your interests, your research and what is happening in different areas and at different scales. This is interesting and can be fruitful, and helps prevent you from getting stuck in the rut of your niche bit of research. Attending talks in anthropology, geography, and social sciences has given me new perspectives for my thesis, where the question I am researching requires an interdisciplinary approach.

Figure from Keenan et al. (2021) showing population change in the context of palaeoclimate and changes in pollen (a proxy for deforestation).